The Third Time Was Not the Charm

Verónica Vega

Nation. Illustration by Yasser Castellanos.

HAVANA TIMES — These days, I’ve been recalling a two-part post I wrote for Havana Times, titled Cuba’s Horizontal Gravity (1st2nd) I’ve also been thinking about this force that restricts our movement across the world, not unlike the physical force that tethers us to the Earth.

I’ve heard some say that, if human beings had wings, people would already have devised restrictions for their use, and boundaries would have been traced up in the sky. What humans fear most is how others use their freedom, as well as their own inability to detect lies, promises that will not be fulfilled.

At the current US Embassy in Havana, different from the former US Interests Section only in the fact that now the Star-Spangled Banner flutters across the building, we continue to see the long lines of people hoping to get a visitor’s visa, a process so uncertain for relatives that it sometimes resembles a lottery draw.

I went through the experience in 1993, when one had to wait outside the building since the early hours of the morning to get a spot in the line, at that same park that has been the stage of the invisible war, the tangible abyss, of a Cuba split between two shores. My father was the one inviting me back then. I hadn’t seen him since the age of three, and I had constructed him throughout my life through letters, photos, Christmas postcards and a voice I’d heard only over the phone.

Naively, I thought that the only thing standing in the way of the reunion I had longed for since childhood was an “interview,” a stamp on piece of paper, a ticket, a flight. Being denied a visa was so brutal for me that I didn’t menstruate for three months, without being pregnant.

Last year, my younger sister, who has lived in Miami since 1998 (thanks to the residency lottery draw), convinced me to exorcise my demons and make a second attempt, to stand in line again – in the morning, in a line that is better organized now, by custodians dressed in black and gray – at the same park surrounded by people who profit from the war between the shores, advertising such things as “We fill out forms”, “instant photos,” and other such things.

The second rejection made me cry on a bench, at a different park, mainly because wishes combine with expectations and I had pictured the reunion with my sister, father and friends I haven’t seen in fifteen or twenty years.

I swore I would never again sit among those who wait at the “Interview Room,” where they take your prints and, guided by women in red vests, one advances down a thick line of people at a snail’s pace, sometimes waiting as much as two hours, unable even to shift in place because of how crowded the place is, witnessing, against one’s wishes, the direct and sometimes trick questions asked those standing before the glass, the personal dramas and implacable verdict of “I’m sorry, you don’t qualify.”

I swore I would never again set foot in that room, unless I were invited by a cultural institution that would spare me the accusation of being an illegal immigrant in disguise, someone considered guilty unless they can prove their innocence in two or three minutes.

This year, however, my father, who refuses to visit Cuba, underwent a delicate heart operation that saved his life and insisted I visit him in New York, convinced my curse could vanish in a single day, standing before the pane of glass and the scrutinizing eyes of an official, indifferent to how my heart races when I’m standing there, as she asks me questions using a microphone, not knowing, not believing, that, nine years ago, I turned down an official sponsorship request and decided not to leave Cuba, an official who, with a gesture, rejects the carefully organized documents and concludes: “I’m sorry, your visa request has been denied,” to me through the narrow space beneath the glass. In a moment, I had also lost a total of 190 CUC (220 USD), plus 60 Cuban pesos (3 USD) for the hasty photo I had taken against a white background.

The official attaches a page to the form that reads: “You have been unable to demonstrate that you have no intentions of leaving your place of residence definitively,” but “you can try again,” that is to say, pay for everything again, stand in the long line of people and go through the humiliation of a public interview, “provided your personal circumstances have changed significantly.”

To cross, for the third time, those metal bars rusted by the nearby sea that has suddenly washed the other shore to infinity, to a distant exile – a sea that has buried who knows how many victims of this absurd war that will continue to dismember bodies and families, despite the fact the Star-Spangled Banner now flutters on this shore.